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Better Know: Thomas Vanek's Decline

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Thomas Vanek's decline is real and there's reason to believe there's more to last season's struggles than an injury and adjusting to a new system.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

There are very good reasons to think that Thomas Vanek may be better this season. To make that argument, you could talk about intangibles like how he's healthy now following offseason surgery or that it will be the first season where Vanek is settled into and familiar with the Wild system to start the year.

Or you could dive in a little more and note that he posted the worst power play shooting percentage of his career in his first season with the Wild and is unlikely to repeat that very low number, as Chris noted in his bold prediction piece. A regression to his career average there should be worth some goals.

However, there is a lot of information buried in his stats that suggests he was set up to succeed in a major way last year. His inability to deliver may indicate that the decline we saw in his raw numbers is real and not an outlying statistic.

One stat alone indicates that this is worth investigating. Vanek's dCorsi last season was -199.90, the worst of his career. (dCorsi is, to over-simplify, the difference between expected and actual CF% based on usage.) That alone should set off alarm bells, but those alarms are amplified when you see that it was the worst dCorsi of any forward in the NHL, narrowly edging out James van Riemsdyk's -193.92. Only Trevor Daley, Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman and Brian Strait posted worse marks than Vanek.

Set Up for Success

Vanek was given 11.98% ZSO%Rel in 2014-15. That's the fourth best relative zone starts among the 16 Wild forwards who played at least 100 minutes. As a raw total, he saw 60% of his starts in the offensive zone.

Mike Yeo was giving Vanek a chance to produce.

In both metrics, ZSO%Rel and ZSO%, he only had a single season in his career where he was given better zone starts. He produced less while being given more.

His 1.9 P/60 was the worst of his career since his rookie season. His G/60 of 0.8 ties the worst mark of his career. His 4.1 P/60 on the power play is the second worst of his career and comes just one season after he posted the worst mark of his career.

Scoring rate statistics can be dubious, because a lot goes into playing time. You're given more playing time when you're playing well and more playing time reduces your scoring rate. If a player scores a point per game at 12 minutes per game or 22 minutes per game, that's a good season, but it's those rate numbers will be very different and have very different stories behind them.

That's how we wind up with situations where Kevin Hayes is one of the top 20 scorers in the NHL by scoring rate last year. If you redraft the league for a 3-on-3 tournament where scoring is prioritized, Hayes isn't going in the top 100.

There's value in scoring rate, but let's take it with a grain of salt.

Contextualizing that a bit for Vanek, it would have taken him less production last season to match the scoring rate totals of previous seasons because he was playing the fewest even strength minutes of his career, in addition to playing the fewest power play minutes of his career.

Regression something something please

His shooting percentage doesn't offer much help either. Yes, his power play Sh% was really low and it probably rebounds, but with less and less power play time being allotted to him season over season, that rebound toward his career average shooting percentage is going to mean less and less if it does come.

In addition, if his even strength production continues to dip, there will be less reason to give him power play time, giving credence to the reading that his power play time per game could continue to fall, giving him fewer opportunities for that potentially increased Sh% on the PP to matter.

Overall, he shot 12.15% at even strength last season. That's the fourth highest Sh% of his career at even strength and the best he's shot since the 2009-10 season. If it's been that long since he's shot that high, there's some evidence that his Sh% is dropping at large and that a regression to his career average may be over-estimating what he'll actually do this season.

Vanek Shooting Percentage

Thomas Vanek's Shooting Percentage season-by-season

With Vanek's Shots per 60 minutes of even strength play at a career-low 6.3 last season, it's a concern that his shooting percentage could be dropping as a factor of aging if he's not able to get more pucks on net. Fewer shots and lower shooting percentage = way fewer goals.

There's a bit of a bright spot to be found here. He isn't likely to have a career-low shot rate again when he's been pretty consistently in the high 7 or low 8 area his entire career. With all the other dips, it's hard to say I have a lot of faith in a big rebound, but there's a good chance his shot rate comes up over last season's levels.

Vanek Shotst/60

Thomas Vanek's Shots/60 season-by-season

Of course, it's worth noting that Vanek said during the offseason that he's got to shoot more and that he's become a bit more a playmaker. He believes his lower shot rate is in part because Minnesota doesn't have the center depth of other competitive teams in the league. (I'm paraphrasing and editorializing a bit here.) That puts Vanek in a position where he's not shooting as much as he used to and is instead trying to set up plays, passing instead of shooting. (His usage as regards linemates in relation to his shooting rate was explored here by Tony recently.)

Related to his shooting rate, his shot attempts and CF% show similar things. Despite those great zone starts he posted a -5.2% score-adjusted CF%Rel. Again, that's the worst mark of his career. Double-edged sword. It's a bad sign. Taken alone, I might gamble that it bounces back. Taken in tandem with everything else, I'm much less confident.

His score-adjusted CF60 of 51.0 was also the worst of his career. Which is probably a worse sign than his relative CF%.

We all know that the only time Vanek has been a part of a backcheck was the day after the team camping trip when they were checking each other for ticks. So, we aren't judging his defensive game, because Vanek seems to be one of those rare players whose defensive game is rough at best, but gets overlooked because of his elite-level skill at the other end of the ice. I concede that his game was known when he was signed and that he is a player who isn't on the roster to be a part of a shut down line, but to provide offense. So, his relative Corsi is terrible, but it's arguably worse news that his CF60 is sitting at a career-low. If his CF%Rel stayed the same, it'd probably be preferable to see him getting lit up in his own zone but scoring more often (more events at the same shot attempt differential percentage) than to have a low event number at this poor CF%Rel. It means he's not getting it done in his own zone in addition to having struggles defensively.

It's worth noting, since we've talked about his zone starts, that adjusting his Corsi numbers for zone starts doesn't do him any favors. His CA60 stays about the same, but his CF60 falls quite a bit, and thus his overall CF% falls as well. But, again, his CF number dropping off is alarming. He hit a career-low usage-adjusted CF60 last season, as you can see below.

Vanek Usage Adjusted Corsi Chart

About Those Teammates

It could be argued that some of this decline isn't just the reduced role overall, but a change in linemates. He's been a top line guy for a lot of his career, getting ice time with John Tavares in Long Island and getting the best Buffalo had to offer through much of his time there.

In Minnesota, he was initially given that kind of usage, starting the season with Mikko Koivu as his center (and, briefly, Matt Cooke on the other wing... remember that game?). By midseason, he'd been -- and continues to be -- relegated to a third line role where he's spending a lot of time with Charlie Coyle as his center. But if you look at linemates over the course of a season by CorT%, he had the best linemates of his career last season at 51.4%. Using TOIT%, he was at 18.4 last season, which ranks in the upper half of TOIT% in his career. So, he was getting strong teammate selection comparatively.

What about his competition? His CorC% was at 49.8%, the easiest competition he's faced over the last five seasons, third easiest of his career. By TOIC%, he faced the easiest competition since his rookie season.

These four metrics are far from perfect, but they poke holes in the notion that he's not being given quality teammates or that he is being lined up against the other team's best lines.

That Journey Song

Is there hope? Yeah. Sure. His shots should come up and he's obviously aware of some of the issues like his lower shot rate that prevents him from doing what he does well. Additionally, the Wild have a talented group of forwards who should, on paper, have more success on the power play this season. With the offseason focus on the man advantage and the likely regression of Vanek's Sh% on the PP, there are areas where we could project some improvement.

However, we aren't just talking about an isolated stat like an anomalously low shooting percentage, but a collection of worrisome dips that point to overall play and not isolated luck.

Does that mean he's useless or done? No. Not at all.

Vanek can still contribute and play an important role with the team. If he can get some chemistry going with Tyler Graovac (when he's healthy) and Charlie Coyle, that's a big line that has the ability to turn games with secondary scoring. Having a player like Vanek on a third line makes opposition have to take the three top lines as serious scoring threats. I'm taking Vanek in decline on my third line any day (setting aside the cap hit for now).

Also, the injury shouldn't be underestimated and I don't mean to do that here. I don't know exactly how much that impaired him through a piece of last season.

Yet, there's a lot of evidence that this isn't just one bad season that he'll definitely bounce back from. He's been put into a position to succeed and did worse than he's ever done in many categories despite getting great zone starts and all the opportunities that could be afforded a defensive liability who wasn't delivering the production that was required of him. That's not a promising situation.

Ultimately, this could go one of two ways. 1. It's aging and decline, cut and dry. The result of that is that we're likely to see more of the same from Vanek this season, if not a little less. 2. There's a systemic element to these numbers. That the cause of decline is not just a slow adjustment to the Wild's style of play, but that the position he's put in on the forecheck lends itself to shooting less and not using his toolbox to the best of his ability. He appears to be cognizant of and there's evidence for a bit of number 2. But if he's not able to find a way to work through that challenge and if Mike Yeo's not able to find a way to get Vanek in the slot or in front of the net with someone feeding him the puck, then the end result will be the same.

All Corsi numbers, unless otherwise noted are score-adjusted. Advanced stats, Burtch's dCorsi and Hextally charts via War on Ice. Shots/60 via Hockey Analysis. Usage-adjusted Corsi numbers and visualizations via Own the Puck.